"O WHERE ARE KINGS AND EMPIRES NOW?"
"I lay in Zion a stone for a foundation stone" (Isa. 28:6)
INTRO.: A hymn which reminds us that in contrast to the crumbling foundations of this world’s kingdoms, the church has an unshakable foundation stone is "O Where Are Kings and Empires Now?" The text was written by Arthur Cleveland Coxe, who was born on May 10, 1818, at Mendham, NJ, the son of Samuel Hanson Cox, a well known Presbyterian minister of Brooklyn, NY. His first published work was Advent in 1837. After graduating from New York University in 1838, Arthur changed the spelling of his last name and, due to certain theological issues with his father, left the Presbyterian Church to identify with the Protestant Episcopal Church, entering its General Theological Seminary on Chelsea Square in New York City, NY. In 1839, while a 21-year-old student there, he wrote a poem of ten eight-line stanzas entitled "Chelsea," which first appeared that year in The Churchman magazine and was included the next year in the author’s own Christian Ballads. The original first stanza is as follows:
"When old Canute the Dane Was merry England’s king,
A thousand years agone, and more, As ancient rymours sing,
His boat was rowing down the Ouse, At even, one summer day,
Where Ely’s tall cathedral peered Above the glassy way."
This hymn is a portion of that poem in which the first stanza is the first half of stanza 6, the second stanza is the last half of stanza 8, the third stanza is the first half of stanza 7, and the fourth stanza is the last half of stanza 7, with a considerable amount of revision. Following his graduation from the Seminary, Coxe became a minister in the Episcopal Church in 1842 and served three churches, beginning at St. John’s in Hartford, CN. Also in 1842, he published Athanasion. After a journey to the British Isles, of which he wrote Impressions of England, he moved to Grace Church in Baltimore, MD. Next he went on to Calvary Church in New York City. Then in 1865, after declining an appointment as Bishop of Texas, he became Bishop of Western New York with residence at Buffalo. His other works include Sermons of Doctrine and Duty in 1855 and L’Episcopat de l’Occident in 1874. In 1873, at the general conference of the Evangelical Alliance in New York City, President Woolsey of Yale University quoted the first stanza of this hymn while speaking of the world’s skeptical attitude toward prayer. For a moment there was silence, during which time the full significance of the reference flashed on every mind, and the response was instantaneous and universal applause.
A member of the Episcopal Hymnal Commission from 1879 to 1881, Coxe refused permission for any of his hymns to be included. Other hymns by him, none of which appear in any of our books, include "How Beauteous Were the Marks Divine" and "We Are Living, We Are Dwelling." His "In the Silent Midnight Watches" with a tune by George F. Root appeared in Moody and Sankey’s Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs (No. 1) in 1875. Coxe died on July 29, 1896, at Clifton Springs, NY. For "O Where Are Kings and Empires Now," every book which I was able to check uses a tune (St. Anne) that is attributed to William Croft and almost universally associated with "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" by Isaac Watts. However, Nethymnal (formerly Cyberhymnal) suggests another one (Tallis’ Ordinal), composed around 1567 by English Renaissance musician Thomas Tallis (1505-1585). Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church during the twentieth century for use in churches of Christ, "O Where Are Kings and Empires Now?" appeared in the 1963 Christian Hymnal edited by J. Nelson Slater with the Croft tune.
The song is intended to impress upon our minds the divine origin and eternal nature of God’s church.
I. Stanza 1 pictures the church as a praying body
"O where are kings and empires now Of old that went and came?
But, Lord, Thy Church is praying yet, A thousand years the same."
A. The kings and empires of the past have come and gone and are no more because they have been brought to a full end: Jer. 30:11
B. But the Lord’s church is still lifting up holy hands in prayer: 1 Tim. 2:8
C. The reason is that even through a thousand years, the kingdom of God cannot be shaken: Heb. 12:28
II. Stanza 2 pictures the church as a fortress with strong foundations
"We mark her goodly battlements, And her foundations strong;
We hear within the solemn voice Of her unending song."
A. The church’s goodly battlements symbolize that she is to fight the good fight of the faith: 1 Tim. 6:12
B. But goodly battlements are not sufficient; she needs a strong foundation, which is Jesus Christ Himself: 1 Cor. 3:11
C. Within those battlements and upon that good foundation, she sings an unending song of praise to the Lord: Col. 3:16
III. Stanza 3 pictures the church as a holy kingdom that can withstand anything
"For not like kingdoms of the world Thy holy Church, O God;
Though earthquake shocks are threatening her, And tempests are abroad."
A. The kingdom of Christ is not like the kingdoms of this world: Jn. 18:36
B. Rather, it is a holy church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing: Eph. 5:26-27
C. And the Lord will protect her, even tehrough earthquake shocks and tempests: Ps. 46:1-2
IV. Stanza 4 pictures the church as an immovable mountain
"Unshaken as eternal hills, Immovable she stands,
A mountain that shall fill the earth, A house not made with hands."
A. Like the eternal hills, it shall stand forever as prophesied: Dan. 2:44
B. Therefore, it is described as an immovable mountan that shall fill the earth: Isa. 2:2-3
C. And it is a house not made with hand, whose origin and destiny are both eternal in the heavens: Heb. 9:11
CONCL.: This hymn gives praise to God for His church. A quick glance at history reveals the wrecks of great kingdoms littering the shores of time, while the living, praying church has endured the forces arrayed against it and is still here. Some might object that this inspiring vision is not really true given the apostasy and aberrations that have passed for orthodox Christianity throughout church history. Yet, in reality the song does give an essentially accurate view because we see that the seed of the kingdom, which is the word of God, still abides and through it the true church continues to exist and to pray, in contrast to those entities of which we wonder, "O Where Are Kings and Empires Now?"